Thursday, April 19, 2012

Virtues & vices (Cayman's expats)

I’ve been putting Cayman’s name out there, lately, on a few Internet forums. There’s not all that much name-recognition, to be honest. We tend to forget that our Islands are little known outside the context of tax-dodging and money-laundering. Anyway, I post for my pleasure in getting the truth out about Cayman – warts and all, as they say.

It irritates me that so many lies and half-truths are told about us – not by overseas observers so much as by our own residents and defenders. With 34 years’ residence under my belt, I believe that Cayman’s virtues and vices are much more closely balanced than our defenders concede or than our critics claim. Neither party should be telling lies about the place. If I didn’t believe that the virtues out-weighed the vices, I wouldn’t still be here.

Most medium-term and long-term residents are aware that I’ve had to fight the political establishment off and on for the past 24 years to remain here. The real battle began in 1988 when I was selected as the expat patsy (“expatsy”?) to be punished for the Chamber of Commerce’s victory over the then-Government’s Social Security proposal, and the Chamber’s narrow failure to defeat the draft Labour Law – which latter we described as “a lurch towards socialism” in an age when socialism was a very dirty word in Cayman. The Chamber was categorised as “a seditious organisation” in the Legislative Assembly; private-sector opposition to the ruling party’s desires was considered treason, no less. What was said about the Chamber’s Manager doesn’t bear repeating.

That’s all ancient history, now, but the tales are worth the telling because government treatment of its critics hasn’t changed a bit. Expats are still at the mercy of native-Caymanian politicians and their friends. Without fair warning, new expats might innocently sign their names to public criticism of some government policy in letters to newspapers or postings on the Cayman News Service forum. The next thing they would know is that their Work Permits were not renewed at the end of their current 12-months period. Migrants in menial jobs might find their Permits cancelled in mid-term.

Even protesting against short-payment of wages warrants cancellation, for the latter class. Plenty of housemaids are sent back to Jamaica without all their back wages, and some find themselves forbidden to return to Cayman in other jobs, at the instigation of vengeful employers. Caymanian employers have what amounts to carte blanche to steal their employees’ pensions contributions. A couple of years ago the Pensions Office identified 670 employers guilty of that crime; I think only two or three of them were prosecuted in court. In all the other cases, the employees were back in their homelands and not available to testify. This sort of practice explains the ongoing tensions between the native-Caymanian community and the expat communities. Just about any native Caymanian can arrange the deportation of just about any Work Permit expat for just about any reason.

Nevertheless, expats make up two thirds of the Islands’ population, and we are all here by choice. We middle-class expats – mostly white – can identify to some extent with the whites of the American South in the days before the Civil War. Our very comfortable lives owe a heck of a lot to the availability of low-wage domestic helpers, gardeners, labourers, waiters, shop-assistants, etc. What are low wages in Cayman are high wages in Jamaica and the other Caribbean islands, Central America, Philippines, and the Indian sub-continent. Despite an indentured-service system that lends itself to exploitation, it is worth the risk and effort for migrants who would be unemployed at home.

Liberal-minded employers can and do pay more than the going rates or add to the wages of migrants hired from agencies. Guilty consciences, no doubt; but being filthy rich by the servants’ standards does carry moral obligations.